This entry is cross-posted at Generally Speaking.
Recent events in Egypt are indeed historic. They can be viewed through a host of lenses. Among them: the Egyptian people, President Mubarak, the Egyptian military, autocratic rulers in the Middle East and their citizens, terrorist groups like Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Western governments. I will focus here on the lens through which the United States government and its national security apparatus have viewed the events at a strategic level, and what its implications might be in the future.
First, the events over these eighteen days showcased the clash between U.S. interests and espoused ideals. We attempted to straddle the fence between supporting the justified aspirations of millions of suppressed Egyptians and our own interests in the stability of a long time ally in the region. We knew that whatever position we took had secondary effects in other allied countries in the region led by dictators of suppressed populations. Ideals won out in the end, driven by events fortuitous for the U.S., but we lost some moral authority in the process. It is interesting that the Bush Administration’s “freedom and democracy” agenda in the Middle East is playing out but with a strategy and driving force they never considered. In both Iraq and Egypt dictators were toppled with two differences, one, we liked one of the two dictators and two, one of the actions did not cost the U.S. anything in blood or treasure. And as to final outcomes in the two, I would suggest that Iran is more likely to dominate Iraq’s future policies than the Muslim Brotherhood is to dominate Egyptian politics.
Second, these events illustrate a model or theory of these democratization processes. These types of events fall on a continuum from aspiration, to persuasion, to coercion. The American Revolution, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, and now the Tunisian and Egyptian movements fall into the aspiration category. Energy and determination came from the people. Persuasion is the least often experienced of the three, but may have been dominant in South Africa and Northern Ireland in our lifetimes. Finally, we have democracy through coercion, best exemplified in Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. continues to spend blood and treasure; democracy is foreign; and strong internal cultural, ethnic, and historic forces work against it. Clearly, democracy generated from the aspiration end of the continuum is preferable.
A final observation at the strategic level regards the effect these events may have on the “global war on terrorism” that the U.S. has been fighting for almost ten years at a cost of almost 6,000 lives and two trillion dollars to this point. Al Qaida has identified the overthrow of Mubarak as a primary goal since at least 1996. He has been overthrown and there is no hint of Al Qaida influences or involvement. Tunisia has gone the same route and several other Middle East dictators have taken steps to eliminate or reduce the grievances that Al Qaida has used to justify its movement and motivate its adherents. These aspiration and persuasive democracy movements reduce the market for what Al Qaida has to sell and reduced its effectiveness and brand. Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian issue, and overall U.S. Middle East policy are still potential rally cries for Al Qaida but its market for mayhem has contracted greatly. It remains to be seen whether America can take advantage of these developments in its “war on terrorism.” Watch closely.
Major General (Ret.) Dennis Laich is the Director of the PATRIOTS Program (www.ODUPatriots.com) for veterans at Ohio Dominican University.